LitterAction – a personal perspective


Mike Grant takes a different approach to fighting litter

Like you all I detest litter. It seems to be everywhere. Endemic road side rubbish is a particular eyesore that constantly irritates me. Whilst I admire and respect the excellent work that many supporters of Litter Action do in organising groups to pick up litter in their spare time I am not a member of a group. However at times I have been driven out of sheer frustration to litter pick areas close to home, the North Harbour beaches of Eastbourne and a recreational green in Northiam, a village in East Sussex where I previously lived, regularly trashed by teenagers drinking and dumping the detritus of their take away dinners.

Although volunteer litter picking has a great benefit in tidying many blighted environments I do have a fundamental issue with volunteerism. A one off scour does not provide a permanent solution and it cannot be deployed in certain environments such as major highways or rail tracks. However more importantly it abrogates the responsibility under law that a duty body such as the local council or a highways agency has to do the job. If the work of litter picking is done for them there is little need or incentive for the duty body or land owner to provide a service. I accept of course they don’t need much excuse here – local authorities and highways agencies are shockingly insensitive to the mess that is allowed to accumulate in their patch, which then becomes a permanent visual monument to their lack of care. The financial austerity cannot be used as an excuse in my view, although it will be offered. Prior to the 2008 banking crisis and subsequent recession the commitment to and provision of  litter picking services was no better despite the inflation busting council tax rises that we incurred year on year under Labour’s watch.

Over recent years I have taken a different approach to fighting litter other than picking it up. Back to my time in Northiam, after regularly removing rubbish from the public green outside my house, I became fed up with paying council tax and not getting a service, doing the work others should be. This has been a fundamental issue that has shaped my thinking. We are familar with the phrase, “No taxation without representation,” a 1750s slogan to reflect a grievance that contributed to the American War of Independence. Today I think the equivalent should be, “No taxation without service.” We all complain if a company takes our money and provides a shoddy or non existent service or product, so why not complain to a local authority that we pay tax to about a failure to remove litter?

The green was managed by the Parish Council but when I raised the issue of the litter problem, all I received was excuses, a no can do attitude and the dubious advice that I should photograph the teenagers dropping litter and report it to the police. Right. Who are you kidding? That’s a sure fire way of being accused of being a paedophile. Subsequently I learned the green was held on a lease by the Parish Council with the District Council as the freeholder. On inspection of  the lease I discovered that it contained a clause that it had to be kept in a clean and tidy condition. I subsequently brought the matter to the attention of the District Council solicitor who concurred and forced the Parish Council to find and pay for a litter picker. After a while he left the village and I took over the job and was paid £50 p.m. for my efforts to tidy the green and a separate playing field. I undertook the work for several years with great satisfaction that the job was done properly; I enjoyed good exercise and fresh air, whilst walking the dog – and was happy in the knowledge I was getting an effective rebate on my Council Tax.

A recent move to Eastbourne has brought new issues with litter. The town centre streets and beaches are kept immaculately clean but Eastbourne has its dirty little corners. The North Harbour beaches, at the edge of town abut private developments of flats and a promenade. It is a beautiful area to live, I am a minute’s walk from uncrowded and uncommercial beaches with a back drop of a old Martello Tower and a sweep of the bay to Hastings. However the beaches are blighted with litter especially dog poo bagged up and dumped by rocks, between groynes and by the Martello Tower. The problem is endemic in Sovereign Harbour, the largest residential and leisure harbour in northern Europe. In one sense it is odd that dog owners bother to carry bags with them, pick up the pooh but then dump it. Then again there are simply no litter bins along the promenade or on the beaches which stretch for just under a mile. The miscreants are not entirely irresponsible – some people are happy to walk around carrying the unsightly and smelly bagged remains of their dogs’ dinners over a long distance to find a bin elsewhere, others are not. I don’t condone it but I understand it.

The council’s response was to issue an well intentioned but ineffective “Dog Poo Fairy” campaign, leaflets and posters to remind the culprits there is no magical person there to remove the bags. I think they have completely missed the point, aside from the fact the irresponsible don’t read these things or change their behaviour, that litter on the ground has to be removed.

And there’s the rub of it, the Harbour suffers from multiple ownerships and responsibilities. The management companies of the North Harbour developments are responsible for the beaches from the high water mark, the Environment Agency from there to the waterline. In reality there was no litter picking. This is a perfect storm for rubbish – no bins and no litter picking. Well to cut a long story short I complained to various people including the management company of my development, to whom I pay a service charge and also found an ally in a local councillor. The management company cleared up litter in their section and now Eastbourne Borough Council have adopted the beaches and are providing a proper litter picking service. The beaches are now much cleaner although promised bins have yet to be delivered.

I’ve rambled on enough now but to close I have also had some success in complaining about roadside litter. I would recommend using the online “Report a Fault” schemes run by local authorities and their highways departments and failing action to telephone complaints to the relevant cleansing department. One of the most satisfying results was the threat of a Litter Abatement Order some years ago on Tunbridge Wells Borough Council about the state of the A21 which resulted in a major clear up. Unfortunately indifference returns, the same areas become blighted again and repeated action is required. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to keep at it and of course life has to be lived. However I am satisfied a Victor Meldrew spirit and a different approach to litter action other than picking it up has achieved something positive over the years and hope others will take up the fight to badger local authorities, highways agencies and other duty bodies to get their finger out and deliver the service we are all taxes paying for. It does not require anything or anyone special. We can all make a difference by complaining to the right people.

Mike Grant


  1. Mike, you make some well-argued points. Badgering the relevant authorities is something we will need to be more skilful and consistent at doing. And yes, we need to get full value for money for the Council Taxes we pay.

    However, without getting into discussion about cuts in funding to Councils from central government and how this has impacted on services, it is clear to me that in my own area, the resources required to keep on top of the problem are wholly inadequate. I have estimated that there would probably have to be a tenfold increase in personnel for this to happen. As this is not going to happen in my lifetime, a second best option is for me and my group to target frequently unsightly areas and work to supplement the efforts of the local Council.

    I really do wish we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning to provide a voluntary back-up service, but I would rather provide it than not at all and merely have to wait for a logged complaint with Leeds City Council to translate into action! The litter problem for a city the size of Leeds is biblical and will never be resolved by Council services alone.

    In addition, the spin-offs of volunteering are a healthy camaraderie amongst local residents and a sense of collective ownership of the area. It’s simply very satisfying to meet with others and get a problem sorted out. Transmitting this to a wider local audience who then buy in to the idea is a bonus.

    Kind regards,

    Jeff Yates,
    The Litter-Free Guiseley Campaign,
    Outskirts of Leeds.

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